How do you start a revolution?

Revolution: a forcible overthrow of a government of social order, in favour of a new system.

Such occurrences are scattered throughout time, bringing rise to such figures as George Washington and Fidel Castro both of whom continue to influence our world today. However how does such an impactful event begin? Even though revolutions are complex, multifaceted events at the heart of many lie the same conditions, processes and catalysts. As the father of Communism, Karl Marx stated ‘History repeats itself…’ Even though the fundamental assumption at the centre of Marx’s idea is simplistic, common strands can be found throughout time providing the keys to social change across the ages.

The famous phrase, ‘The economy, stupid’ coined by James Carville during Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign seems to aptly summarise the underlying presence of the economy as a force for change throughout history and more specifically as a catalyst for revolution. The 1917 Russian Revolution can serve as an example of this; from 1916 Russian peasants were expected to work for 11 hours a day in adverse conditions. At the end of the long and gruelling day they returned to their living quarters typically sharing with at least five other workers. In addition to this Sergei Witte’s land reforms earlier in the 20th century that created overcrowding on the land plots in which they worked, and the continued refusal of the Tsarist regime to allow worker ownership of land led to brutal economic conditions and an appalling quality of life for the poorest in Russian society. These negative economic factors made Russian workers look for an alternative governing system that would better represent their views and allow them to remove their Tsarist oppressors. One such alternative was the Marxist-Leninist ideology gaining tract throughout Russia, an ideal based on the removal of private property and as a result the autonomy of land they so desired. Thus five years later after much violence and bloodshed the USSR was formed, with the principals the workers had fought for enshrined in the new constitution ‘It is only in the camp of the Soviets… that it has been possible to eliminate the oppression of nationalities… and to establish the basis of a fraternal collaboration of peoples.’ As proven by this example, when a large group in society is hungry and economically disadvantaged they will typically look for a new system that removes the disparity in wealth seen before.

As the French philosopher Voltaire once sardonically remarked ‘An ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.’ Even though Voltaire died in 1778 this quote still seems to apply in a world in which assassination is a key method in upholding governments deemed unacceptable to western interests, as seen by the removal of the ruling power in Chile, Guatemala and Iran. However the use of violence to supplement suffrage and undermining democratic principles can be seen as another strand connecting revolutions in the modern world. The People Power Revolution of 1983 in the Philippines can clearly be linked to the misuse of the democratic process. Ferdinand Marcos had been the President of the Philippines since 1965, after the end of his second term in 1972 instead of standing down he used martial law to reinforce his power and by 1973 he had established himself as the lone ruler of the Philippines. Marcos’ rule slowly became more despotic, creating a new self-written constitution and either arresting or exiling all of his political rivals. Ninoy Aquino was one of such rivals, before Marcos established martial law Ninoy was the leader of the opposition. Aquino was permitted to leave the Philippines in 1980 after suffering a heart attack during his seventh year of unjust imprisonment. On August 21, 1983 Aquino returned to his home country, the speech he planned to make on his arrival stated: “I have returned on my free will to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedoms through non-violence. I seek no confrontation.” However he never read this statement as upon stepping off the plane at Manilla Airport he was assassinated. The violent killing of a popular, non-violent political figure appeared to be the final straw for the people of the Philippines and even though protest had been prevalent before the assassination of Ninoy, Filipinos became united in action against the violent dictatorship. They took to the streets in mass peaceful-protest, at the peak of the revolution three million people marched down the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, wearing yellow ribbons in homage to their lost leader. This collective action and mounting military assaults against his regime forced Marcos to resign in 1986, finally ending fourteen years of repression and corruption. The People Power Revolution truly unified the people of the Philippines showing that democracy is a concept for which people will always fight, and that going against the rich tradition of representation and egalitarianism makes revolution inevitable.

These two factors only skim the surface of the complex multi-causal nature of revolution but they do begin to explain how such an event could be started. Even though many view the idea of revolution as a cliché of a bygone era, as we move into a period of economic uncertainty and electoral fraud becomes increasingly apparent, such an event could be just round the corner.

Contributed by Joe Tyler-Todd

Energy issues: Should Britain adopt fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ has been implemented in the United Kingdom for some time, yet until recently there seems to have been a prevailing unfamiliarity with this form of natural gas extraction. The recent proposals for fracking in Balcombe in Sussex by the company Cuadrilla certainly served to arouse greater consideration in fracking operations. One of the reasons why the British government has changed it’s stance on fracking, and why we have seen the promulgation of proposals in Balcombe, are accountable to the rising demands for energy in this country which are exceeding available supplies and putting increasing levels of pressure on British energy companies, our existing infrastructure, and our own government, who continue to endeavour to secure purchase of fuel stocks abroad. At the same time Britain intends to fulfil obligations to invest and make use of renewable energy sources so as to cut our carbon emissions. As a result, Britain confronts a particularly difficult set of problems. How long can Britain delay this issue and what sort of compromise can be met if Britain adopts fracking? Is fracking compatible in the British Isles? Why is there opposition towards it?

There is an argument to suggest that fracking can be successfully managed when one appreciates the effective strategy implemented in Beckingham in Nottinghamshire. For 50 years 13 square miles of the Gainsborough-Beckingham oil field has been exploited for its natural gas deposits trapped in shale strata 3000 ft. below it. In total 53 fracking operations have been carried out since its establishment, but none of them have yet to cause major subsidence, nor has wildlife been adversely affected. Part of this success is as a result of the decision to maintain the RSPB Beckingham Marshes in the area surrounding the site, which has managed to offset the noise pollution generated from it because of the successful bird population whose birdsong muffles the sound of the operations. The survival and the growth in bird populations in the marshes and indeed other species is testamount to the effective maintenance and removal of chemicals and excess water used in the process to prevent significant run-off, which would otherwise be an inherent hazard and the primary cause of environmental damage. At the same time, operations have entailed both short term and long term economic benefits: 35 people locally are in permanent employment supporting 35 families, and the operations fuel local power stations without the tax burden on importing fuel, yielding enough electricity to support 21,000 homes. On the other hand, fracking activity has entailed unintended consequences on a number of occasions. In Britain it has exposed somewhat the natural geological hazards of the process when a mechanism disturbs local geology. Shale gas testing in Blackpool was claimed to be the main cause of two seismic events in 2011: one tremor of magnitude 2.3 hit the Flyde coast in April and a separate seismic event of 1.4 on the Richter scale occurred a month later on the 27th May, which was later confirmed by the British Geological Survey. Nonetheless, recognising that the Richter scale does not translate the damage induced by an earthquake, it was confirmed that this event enveloped no human or economic damage. It would however be foolish to suggest that because the recorded Blackpool tremors had no known human impacts, that this would be the same case elsewhere in Britain with different circumstances, different geology and different levels of vulnerability.

There are a number of environmental problems linked to fracking other than subsidence. Hydraulic fracturing requires significant input in order for it to function as an extraction process. Indeed, each fracking job requires approximately 1.2-3.5 million m3 of water and similar volumes of water each time a well is reopened. Fracking would no doubt necessitate the usage of local sources of water, and therefore would deplete water levels in local waterways and aquifers, which in turn would damage river ecosystems. The fact that at least 650 different carcinogenic chemicals are used in fracking mixtures further advises the potentially negative impacts of fracking, because these chemicals can leach into local water ways and contaminate them. Nonetheless, natural gas has the potential to satisfy a large fraction of Britain’s energy requirements and natural gas upon combustion produces half as much carbon dioxide to burning coal. The 2 hundred trillion cubic ft. on licensed to the fracking company Cuadrilla in Lancashire (Britain uses 3 hundred trillion cubic ft. per year) could potentially provide 25% of Britain’s annual energy needs for the next 30 years according to its CEO Francis Egan.

There is argument to suggest that fracking, whilst posing negative implications for the environment by burning non-renewable natural gas, could nonetheless be used as a means to sustain Britain’s energy requirements whilst it continues to invest into the renewable energy industry. Currently the natural gas provides more electricity for Britain than all renewable energy sources put together, such is the youth of our own renewable energy industry. In 2012, renewable energy sources supplied 11.3% of Britain’s electricity, whilst 41% of the electricity used was generated through the combustion of natural gas. If some of the money gained from selling natural gas was subsidised into projects developing renewable sources of energy, Britain could mitigate the affects of carbon dioxide emissions by minimizing carbon dioxide output whilst sustaining functions in Britain. In addition, making use of natural gas in the United Kingdom would eliminate the need to import natural gas which uses oil in transportation, which is currently adding to carbon dioxide emissions globally.

Although fracking encompasses positive economic and some environmental benefits, it poses realistic negative shortcomings for countryside and rural communities. A clear example of this is Welsh community in the Vale of Glamorgan, where fracking was approved in October this year. The community of Llantrithyd in the Vale of Glamorgan, some of whom rely upon low scale tourism as a source of income, would lose out to the development of fracking operations in the areas because it would permanently alter the natural landscape and views it provides which attracts seasonal visitors. Secondly, Llantrithyd possesses an historic deer park dating back to 1645 whose deer population could be adversely affected by any contamination of local waterways. In addition to this, one of the long term setbacks for local people would be the growth in congestion on local roads following the activity of fracking company lorries transporting raw materials, gas and chemical volumes to and from sites. On the other hand, when one looks at the example of the Gainsborough-Beckingham fracking site, the limitations of fracking as mentioned above are not characterized by this site. One of the main conclusions we can extract from this is that fracking would entail different repercussions for different locations based upon the contrasting characteristics of varying towns and villages. Therefore, there is argument to suggest that if fracking can be successfully integrated into the local scene and way of life, the benefits of fracking could be brought about without as much of the collateral anticipated by communities. This outlook however would have to settle for the intrinsic environmental symptoms of burning carcinogenic, non-renewable fossil fuels, and satisfying the concerns of local people which itself has a political dimension to it.

To conclude, it must be recognised that fracking poses both beneficial implications and negative ones for the United Kingdom. Some communities will lose out to fracking whilst others will gain from it; and nationally speaking Britain would likely benefit from increased fuel independence, but then again the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels are detrimental to us all in the long term. Localised low scale fracking could work if sufficient appreciation were made to the impacts of fracking taking into account the concerns and potential affects to local the area and landscape, and thus generating a holistic plan. Large scale fracking would encroach on too large a geographical area which would entail more complex ramifications. If anything, it should be down to the local communities to decide whether fracking should operate in their area. Nonetheless, the government will not be able to delay the energy needs of the British people, particularly if prices rise further as a result of depletion in supplies. Should this take precedence over the concerns of fracking to communities around the country? Or should the British people reconsider their way of life which demands ever more of the environment, and that a change in culture would do better to prevent the need to bring these measures into effect?


Contributed By Bertie Bricusse

What is the role of an historian?

Historians should not be confused with a chroniclers; History is not merely the cataloging of events. It would be a redundant subject otherwise. History, however, in one form or another, is the employment of what we learn from the past. How to go about learning, interpreting and consolidating information from records is, however, a difficult, often ambiguous task. We need to make sense of the obscure patterns and regularities of the past, the bias and the validity of what we know. Many historians have arrived at different conclusions on how to use History, all with subtle differences which may appeal to different audiences. Before approaching the different styles historians have used on confronting historical material, it is important to know how such conceptions came about.

Prior to the 19th century, there were considerable weaknesses in historical studies, Arthur Marwick – author of ‘The Nature of History’ – underlined some these problems. Without the systematic use of sources, historians used accounts made by previous historians. The initial problem with this method was that there was a huge reliance on work that easily could have been subjected to biases. For example, the disapproval of a monarch, an authority or a political stream could lead to the alteration of historical documents. Parts of a source could be dissembled, censored and removed so that they became more socially acceptable, creating a distorted image of the past. The actions of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shin Huang, as he attempted to strip society of previous historical articles, involved the persecution of scholars and demonstrated how others can manipulate the authenticity of past records. The intimidating mood, created by executing scholars, resulted in academics falling into a state of restraint in their writing which left future scholars in doubt of what they base their knowledge on. Such problems are uncommon especially under suppressive, draconian regimes. Another prevalent problem associated to pre-1900 historical work was that there was no systematic teaching of History at University. In the absence of such provision and training, History was merely recorded by the literate and thus, the elite of the class system, narrowing perception and making it more difficult to ascertain fact from fiction.

In the many styles taken to deal with History, one of the earliest and more progressive styles was of Thomas Carlyle (1785-1881). In his experiences, Carlyle came to believe that anything important was affiliated more often than not with ‘great men’ and by isolating individuals we could learn from the vital parts of the past. In dismissing the great majority of those in the past – the indifferent, the un-educated and the those too disorganised to shape the future – much time could be reserved to focus on the more important and influential people of the time. Although this partiality does not give us a wholly representative depiction of the past, its main advantage is clarity. It gives a structured approach by assessing key figures and innovators only. In Carlyle’s book, ‘Heroes’, he gave detailed analysis on a range of characters from different cultures and periods of History, with the underlying similarity that they were all ‘heroes’ in some way and gained followers. These ‘heroes’ include Napoleon, Shakespeare and Muhammad. In addition, it is argued that, by examining such individuals in detail, it can be profitable to one’s own heroic side as the inspiration can be drawn from the study.

Whilst Thomas Carlyle saw History as a biography of great men, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) stressed that History is something that shows how it essentially was, ‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen.’ Ranke’s thinking is far more inclusive than Carlyle’s, principally in the sense that as historians we must speak of those who could not speak for themselves, the poor and powerless, and document the suffrage and emotions of the majority. Leopold von Ranke introduced a new approach to Historical studies. He insisted on a number of methods. Firstly, all historical writing must be based on primary sources. Secondly, all of his books should include full scholarly apparatus (footnotes, references and bibliography). Finally, one should be determined to tackle the past and only seek to show the past as it really was. Ranke’s contributions were not merely his advice alone; he also founded the teaching of History at the University of Berlin where he spread his methodology.

Frank McDonough’s contributions to Historical studies are also rather valuable. Historians, in their approach to the past, should avoid studying individuals, especially Hagiography (the study of saints), and instead, learn from History through individual experiences and those of others. For History to be a ‘breathing subject’, it should appear relevant to the present. This concept is reflected well in the career of civil servant E.H. Carr, who through his work in the British Foreign Office, grew to have an instrumental view on History. He was only interested in what would serve the making of policy and to dealing with existing situations. Essentially, McDonough’s approach to History is expedient by nature, and is strong in the fact that connections should be made between past events and those of the future to which we should be prepared to take on.

To conclude, there are some fundamental skills that should be taken on board when attempting to understand the past. From Thomas Carlyle, we can note the importance of treating Heroes with consideration, the great men and embodiments who fulfilled the interests of the general masses. From Leopold von Ranke, we can learn that we must not forget to document the truth; no illusion or false impressions should be created in our study of the past. Finally to McDonough, who has taught that by making connections and identifying the conditions of problems in the past in our own experiences, we will be better adapted to deal with problems that face us in the future.

Contributed by Bertie Bricusse

The Origin of Plate Tectonics

It is remarkable to think that the theory of tectonics, the premise of physical geography, only came to fruition during the 1960’s. It was even deemed ‘pseudo science’ as early as last century. Francis Pyor wrote humorously in his book, ‘The Making of the British Landcape’ that, ‘I studied geology at A-Level, and when I compare my old text books with what is written today, I might as well be looking at another subject.’ The foundation of tectonics was a milestone in geography – that is for certain; an ‘intellectual revolution’ to Pyor. A great deal of today’s geographical knowledge owes its integrity to much of what we have learnt from plate tectonics. It is therefore important to understand how the study came about for any budding geographer.

Our understanding of early geology was fragmented in the early 20th Century. The Australian scientist, writer, and explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, spent a large part of his career pulling past data together. Mawson took considerable interest in the Neoproterozoic period at the peak of his career. He was attempting to argue a case for the existence of a ‘Snowball Earth’ in millennia past. Joseph Kirschvink made an excellent case for this study but this is another story altogether. Mawson’s investigation orientated around the Neoproterozoic period, or pre Cambrian period (545 million years ago), regarded as the period in which multi-cellular life came to exist. Such animals include Trilobites and Archeocyathids (reef-building animals).

Mawson took to utilising the sediment prints on Earth from this period of Earth’s development, of which Mawson documented more than 20 around the world, stretching from the Artic to the Equator.  Mawson argued that the world had experienced ‘its greatest Ice-age’ at one point because traces of thin, smooth layers of sediment, indicative of the affects of melting ice, were found in every location he noted showing the extent of a possible ice-age. Mawson was using this data to primarily plead his case of a ‘Snowball Earth’, but it also alluded to the idea that the continents could have changed positions over time. The continents would have fallen into colder latitudes and subject to different conditions, imprinting characteristics of the climate onto the rock permanently, explaining why continents showed similarities in their sedimentary rock types. Mawson’s work was significant, and radical in its proposals. However the Mawson was not alone in his perception of the continents and their history.

As early as 1596, the Dutchman Abraham Ortelius, and shortly after the Briton, Francis Bacon, both spotted how easily South America could fit alongside Africa. Such subtle observations can be noticed clearly on a globe today. Charles Darwin too was intrigued with this idea, although he took greater action to explain the reason for this. He suggested that land had been grouped towards the centres near the Equator in former periods and had then split off. This was of further use to the later German Scientist, Alfred Wegener, who accelerated the thought process of plate tectonics in the early 20th century.

Wegener, between 1912 and 1915, authored the book ‘The Origin of Continents and Oceans’, in which he documented many of his global studies. One of the fundamental investigations he made on cross-continent analysis demonstrated that rocks found on one continent matched the rocks found on others. For instance, the geology of the Scottish Highlands was identical to the Appalachian Mountains in North America. Conjunctively, fossils of tropical species were found within layers of rock in the Artic. Both pieces of evidence lead Wegener to argue the concept of migrating continents, although the vital supporting evidence of a mantle, composed of slowly progressing magma, was missing from his work. Aside from this, he also proposed that around 300 million years ago, during the Paleozoic era, the continents as we know it were together, as a super-continent, called Pangaea, which was the first of its kind.

Tectonics had a basis to fall back on due to Wegener inferences which were widely accepted. His experiences and studies throughout the world showed patterns and correlation to one another. Despite this it was not until the 1960’s, when further study of the Earth’s lithosphere and mantle showed the Earth to contain a central core of Iron rich magma. The heat generated from the core sustains convection currents within the magma which is kept at a semi-liquid state, creating buoyancy for the continents above it.

In recent years, the study of plate tectonics has been invaluable to geographical predictions and mapping the Earth. In terms of security, it has aided in graphing areas most susceptible to earthquakes, based on the danger of plate margins, which has instigated greater preparation and warning for nations lying in such areas. The establishment of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System in 2004 is an example of our greater intuition to work with the Earth and assess its power. The mapping out of plates on the Earth’s surface has answered questions concerning the existence of super-volcanoes below the Earth’s crust, such as LakeToba, in Indonesia, which lies on a convergent plate margin.

In essence, with our knowledge of tectonics, our ability to determine the movement and hence regulate the affects of plate activity has never been more acute. The chronology of plate movement has granted geographers the evidence to identify, with precision, the latitude of the continents and hence describe the climate and even ecosystems present on the Earth’s continents since the Neoproterozoic period. Perhaps more important to note is the hope we can find in being able to protect civilisation as we know it in the future, based on our hindsight of the past. In our study of the world, geography has not made a greater discovery.

Contributed by Bertie Bricusse